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A Brief History of Handel's 'Messiah'

A Brief History of Handel's Messiah

George Frideric Handel, by Blathasar Denner, c 1727

Handel's Messiah has become an overworked Christmas tradition as hoary as chestnuts roasting on an open fire, gorging on mince pies and eggnog, and trying to avoid shopping mall Santas like so many spectral inhabitants of Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell. Its fatiguing familiarity can easily leave audiences feeling bloated and enervated, rather than inspired and uplifted. This is partly the result of regular annual performances breeding a proverbial degree of contempt, and partly due to a fundamental misconception surrounding Handel's original motivation. Although librettist Charles Jennens adapted biblical stories for his text, describing it as “a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief,” only the first third is actually about the birth of Jesus. In fact, it was originally conceived and intended as a work for Easter and received its premiere in Dublin during Lent. It was not until the nineteenth century that it metastasized into a regular December bolus, a medicinal dose of bogus good cheer that has proved a particularly popular prescription in the US, but failed completely to prevent the season's predictable dyspepsia. Laurence Cummings, conductor of the London Handel Orchestra, has suggested that the fundamentally mistaken custom of performing the piece just prior to Christmas may have derived from necessity, since "There is so much fine Easter music - Bach's St. Matthew Passion, most especially - and so little great sacral music written for Christmas."

George Frideric Handel was born in Saxony in 1685, the same year as J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, and has come to be regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era. In 1712, two years after being appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover (who would became King George I of Great Britain in 1714), he decided to settle permanently in England, where he received a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne after composing the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate in her honour. Handel's musical output was prodigious and it is unfortunate that most of his compositions are no longer familiar to modern audiences. Despite his many chamber works, keyboard suites, operas, and oratorios, he is famous for only a handful of pieces - his Concerti Grossi, a set of keyboard variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith, the Water Music, the Royal Fireworks Music, and, of course, Messiah. Although his operas are almost unknown today, by the time Handel reached his mid-forties, they had established his reputation as the most famous composer in England. A decade later, both his health and good fortune fell into decline. His opera seasons at Lincoln's Inn Fields and Covent Garden were forced to compete with those run by Porpora at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, starring the incomparable Farinelli. In 1737, his right arm was rendered useless from a stroke and he underwent an exceptionally rigorous cure at Aix-les-Chapelle, which fortunately restored much of his strength and creative power. The King's Theatre company having collapsed, Lord Middlesex invited him to compose some new works for the following season. Handel accepted and composed the opera Faramondo and a pasticcio entitled Alessandro Severo. Both were tolerably well received and the season ended acceptably with Xerxes in April 1738 and its much admired aria Ombra mai fu.

After nearly ten years of professional independence as a musician-manager, however, Handel was not prepared to face another season under a governing body of wealthy amateurs. It was also evident that, in its restless search for novelty, the taste of the town was turning away from opera. For his next season, therefore, Handel set out on a new tack with a long and consecutive series of oratorios using English texts and mostly sung by English singers, including Israel in Egypt (1738), followed by Saul and Jupiter in Argos (1739). Once his thoughts and creative energies were turned in this direction, he drafted plans for the coming season at Lincoln's Inn Fields during the early autumn of 1739 along much the same lines. He produced two new oratorios set to texts by a pair of the most admired English poets from an earlier era (Dryden's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day and the exquisite L'Allegro Penseroso ed Il Moderato, adapted and extended from Milton's poems), as well as a revival of Acis and Galatea. In addition, he wrote the twelve magnificent Concerti Grossi, which could be performed on almost any occasion and by any group of players. Though greatly influenced by Corelli, these compositions raised the form to a much more elevated level of significance and represent his most important contributions to instrumental music. Handel's good fortune did not last long, however, with his final opera Deidamia failing just as badly as its predecessor Iemeneo. In 1742, he decided to venture further afield and accepted an invitation to present some of his works in Dublin from William Cavendish, the Fourth Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland - the aristocrat who hired Capability Brown to landscape the garden and park at Chatsworth House, and whom Horace Walpole described as possessing "an impatience to do everything, and a fear to do anything, he was always in a hurry to do nothing.”

Before departing, Handel composed two more oratorios - Messiah and Samson. The libretto for Messiah was prepared by Charles Jennens, who had recently inherited a position of great wealth and property, subsequently dividing his time between his country estate and London. Early in 1741, Jennens wrote to a friend, “Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him & perform it for his own benefit in passion Week. I hope he will lay out his while Genius & Skill upon it.” Using words from both the Old and New Testaments, Jennens compiled various sections of Biblical texts for a three-part libretto: Part One deals with the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah; Part Two pertains to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ; while Part Three concerns the Resurrection as a triumph over mortality. Handel set the words to music in only twenty-four days, starting work on August 22 and completing the entire instrumentation by September 12.

Considering the sheer scale of the 259-page score, this was an astonishing achievement. Miles Hoffman has estimated that Messiah consist of roughly a quarter of a million notes, which means that, in little more than three weeks of ten-hour days, Handel would have had to maintain a continuous pace of writing fifteen notes per minute. Richard Luckett, author of Handel’s Messiah: A Celebration, observed some uncorrected errors and blotted out notes, but remarkably few mistakes given the speed of Handel’s writing. Although it was typical of Handel to work at a frenetic pace (he started Samson immediately after completing Messiah and finished it one month later), Jennens later complained that, although Messiah was “fine entertainment,” it was not as good as it could have been because Handel had composed it too rapidly. He also offered constructive comments, some of which Handel accepted in later revisions. We can only speculate whether Handel wrote these oratorios specifically to be presented in Dublin (Samson was first performed in London in February, 1743), but since the original version of Messiah required a smaller orchestra than Handel was accustomed to using in London (just strings and a solo trumpet, with oboes and bassoons added later), it seems reasonable to assume that he intended to debut it in Ireland where he was unsure what instrumental resources would be available to him.

Handel crossed the Irish Sea in November, 1742. The following month some of his music was performed at a benefit concert for a church, but his real purpose was to raise much-needed funds by presenting a series of six subscription performances at Dublin's Great Music Hall. These began with L'Allegro Penseroso ed Il Moderato, followed by Acis and Galatea and Esther. A second series quickly followed, including Alexander's Feast and a concert version of Iemeneo.. In the final week of March 1743, an announcement in the Dublin Journal stated, “For relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer's Hospital … and of the Charitable Infirmary … on Monday the 12th of Aril, will be performed … Mr Handel's new Grand Oratorio call'd the Messiah, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the organ by Mr. Handel.” At that time, presenting biblical music in the theater was considered impious, a fact that would later hurt the initial reception that Messiah received in London. A performance in aid of charity, however, would mitigate any accusations of impropriety and shrewdly Handel consulted with Church officials before requesting permission for their choirs to participate. A rehearsal took place in March which individuals could attend if they had purchased tickets to to the upcoming performance, with some remarking that the new work easily surpassed anything that had been previously performed in Ireland.

The first public performance took place on April 13, a day later than planned, with an audience of almost seven hundred. Given the oratorio’s sacred subject matter and Handel’s note on his original manuscript that read “To God alone the glory,” it’s hard to imagine that any audience could have interpreted the music as anything less than devout, but opera and classical composers were often the subject of moral outrage in the eighteenth century. During a 1727 performance of a Handel opera, two leading sopranos had come to blows onstage while the audience urged them on, an incident that led satirist John Arbuthnot to write a pamphlet on the absurdity of London's opera world which included the line, “Shame that two such well-bred ladies should call [each other] b---- and wh---, should scold and fight.” Handel’s opera Esther had already outraged the Bishop of London when it was performed by cathedral singers in 1732. When Handel moved from opera into oratorio dealing with religious subject matter, many critics objected to the idea of mixing the sacred and secular worlds where the same theater might host religious subject matter one day and suggestive comedy the next. Handel hoped advertising the piece as A Sacred Oratorio would ameliorate some of the controversy, and his decision to premiere the work in Dublin instead of London was in part to try the work away from Anglican bishops. Even though Jonathan Swift threatened to publicly forbid singers from St. Patrick’s Cathedral from participating, Handel’s name drew such a crowd that audience members were advised to leave their hoop skirts and swords at home for fear of overcrowding. The proceeds went to the respective charities, over one hundred people were subsequently released from debtor's prison as a result, and a second performance took place in Dublin in June.

Handel then returned to London, planning to return to Ireland at some point in the future, although that was not to happen (there were several performances of Messiah without him in Dublin during the late 1740s). Although his main priority was Samson during the first months of 1743, he also decided to revise Messiah and present it under the title A New Sacred Oratorio at Covent Garden in March. An often repeated myth relates that King George II was so moved by the 'Hallelujah' chorus he rose to his feet, with everyone in attendance following suit so as not to be left sitting down when the king stood up - hence the countless battles of concert decorum between the sitters and standers. However, according to various experts, there is no evidence George II was even in attendance, it is highly unlikely journalists in the audience would have overlooked mentioning a royal presence, and the first reference to this story was in a letter written thirty-seven years later. What is indisputable, however, is the degree of contemporary controversy it occasioned, with conservative critics suggesting it was a “Prophanation of God's Name and Word.” Despite such outrage, three performances followed in that year alone. Accepting some (but to his dismay not all) of Jennens' criticism, Handel revised the piece again in 1745 and by the end of the decade it had been repeatedly performed under its own name. Messiah did not really become popular, however, until it was associated with London's Foundling Hospital. Established in 1739 as a “Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children,” Handel presented a benefit concert that also included the recently composed Royal Fireworks Music. In addition, he contributed an organ to the Hospital's chapel and at its dedication was asked to present a concert of “Musick and Voices.” The work he chose was Messiah and its 1750 performance was so successful that a second was scheduled soon after. For the rest of his life, Messiah would be presented regularly in London, including annual performances for the specific benefit of the Hospital.

Until his blindness curtailed his compositional activities, Handel continually revised the oratorio for both aesthetic and pragmatic reasons. He was in the habit of rewriting arias for whatever singers happened to be available, transposing the aria “But who may abide the Day of his coming,” for instance, specifically for the Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni. His various versions throughout the 1750s certainly differ from the first Dublin performance, which can never be duplicated precisely since some of the score is lost forever. Thus there is no one definitive or authoritative way in which to perform Messiah, as Handel himself considered it a constant work in progress. Almost blind, and having lived in England for nearly fifty years, Handel died in 1759, a respected and rich man, and was buried in Westminster Abbey with full state honours. After his death, many other musicians arranged the music in a manner that was considered more compatible to their times. Mozart considerably augmented the orchestra and chorus, humbly writing that any alterations he made should not be seen as an effort at improvement. Ebenezer Prout produced a 'standard' performing score in 1902, but it cannot be considered authentic Handel.

Handel initially wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers, but in the years after his death, the work has been adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. Sir Malcolm Sergent, known for his conducting and love of choral music, had particularly strong views on how Messiah should be performed, insisting that it should be experienced as a large festival work since it was never intended by Handel as an intimate recital. He utilised what he considered the best of Handel, as adapted by Mozart, Prout, and himself, suggesting that Handel had never been really satisfied with the three dozen orchestra members and about twenty singers at the first Dublin performances, nor with the roughly four dozen orchestral players and two dozen singers in the 1754 performance at the Foundling Hospital. Sergent believed that Handel would probably have employed a choir of several hundred, if sufficient resources had been available to him. Indeed, just a few years after he died in 1759, five hundred performers took part in a festival performance, and over three thousand celebrated the centenary of his death.

Although big productions continue to be mounted, recent trends have been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel's original intentions. By the end of the 1970s the quest for authenticity had extended to the use of period instruments and historically correct styles of playing them. The first of such versions were conducted by early music specialists Christopher Hogwood in 1979 and John Eliot Gardiner in 1982. The use of period instruments quickly became the norm on record, although some conductors (Sir Georg Solti among them) continued to favour modern instruments. Gramophone magazine and The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music highlighted two versions, conducted respectively by Trevor Pinnick in 1988 and Richard Hickox in 1992. The latter employs a chorus of twenty-four singers and an orchestra of thirty-one players and performances on an even smaller scale have followed. Since so many musicians have continued to reinterpret Messiah, and so much has been written about the relative merits of different versions, it has become acceptable to perform it in a variety of ways. Claude Debussy once remarked how amazing it was that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony had not been buried under the reams of prose that it had occasioned. The same is true of Messiah, which, in spite of changing views about how it is best presented, remains the most often performed oratorio ever composed.

Although its structure resembles that of an opera, Messiah is not written in dramatic form, there are no impersonations of characters, and no direct speech is involved. Instead, Jennens' text starts with the prophecies of Isaiah and other Old Testament harbingers, then moves on to the Annunciation to the shepherds, the only scene taken from the Gospels. He focusses on the Passion and ends with the 'Hallelujah' chorus in Part Two, while concentrating on the Resurrection and Christ's glorification in heaven in Part Three. Handel's music is distinguished from most of his other oratorios by an orchestral restraint - a quality which Percy M. Young observes was adopted neither by Mozart, nor subsequent arrangers of the music. The work certainly begins quietly enough, with instrumental and solo movements preceding the first appearance of the chorus, whose entry in the low alto register is muted. One aspect of Handel's restraint is his limited use of trumpets throughout the work. After their introduction in the Part I chorus "Glory to God,” apart from the solo in "The trumpet shall sound," they are heard only in the 'Hallelujah' and the final chorus "Worthy is the Lamb.” It is this restraint that makes the brass interpolations particularly effective; as Young has commented, "Increase them and the thrill is diminished.” In 'Glory to God,' Handel marked the entry of the trumpets as da lontano e un poco piano - or 'quietly, from afar.' His original intention had been to place the brass offstage (in disparte) at this point, in order to highlight the effect of distance. In this initial appearance the trumpets lack the expected drum accompaniment, "a deliberate withholding of effect, leaving something in reserve for Parts II and III," according to Luckett.

Despite not being assigned any particular musical key, the general tonal scheme of Messiah has been summarised by Anthony Hicks as "an aspiration towards D major," which is usually associated with the twin elements of both greater illumination and divine glorification. As the oratorio moves forward with various shifts in key to reflect changes in mood, D major emerges at significant points, with trumpet parts in particular underscoring the most uplifting messages. It is also the key in which the work reaches its triumphant ending. In the absence of a predominant key, other integrating elements have been proposed, with Rudolf Steglich suggesting that Handel used the device of the "ascending fourth” as a unifying motif. This device occurs most noticeably in the first two notes of "I know that my Redeemer liveth" and on numerous other occasions. Luckett finds this thesis implausible, however, asserting that "the unity of Messiah is a consequence of nothing more arcane than the quality of Handel's attention to his text, and the consistency of his musical imagination". Allan Kizinn finds "a model marriage of music and text ... From the gentle falling melody assigned to the opening words ("Comfort ye") to the sheer ebullience of the 'Hallelujah' chorus and the ornate celebratory counterpoint that supports the closing "Amen", hardly a line of text goes by that Handel does not amplify."

Part I

The opening Sinfony is composed in E minor for strings and represents Handel's first use of the French Overture form. Jennens commented that the Sinfony contains "passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah," while Handel's early biographer Charles Burney merely found it "dry and uninteresting." A change of key to E major leads to the first prophecy, delivered by the tenor whose vocal line in the opening recitative "Comfort ye" is entirely independent of the strings accompaniment. The music proceeds through various key changes as the prophecies unfold, culminating in the G major chorus "For unto us a child is born," in which the choral exclamations (which include an ascending fourth in "the Mighty God") are imposed on material drawn from Handel's Italian cantata Nò, di voi non vo'fidarmi. Such passages, according to Donald Jay Grout, "reveal Handel the dramatist, the unerring master of dramatic effect."

The pastoral interlude that follows begins with the short instrumental movement, the Pifa, which takes its name from the pifferari (or 'shepherd-bagpipers') who played their pipes in the streets of Rome at Christmas. Handel wrote the movement in both 11-bar and extended 32-bar forms; according to Donald Burrows, either will work in performance. The group of four short recitatives which follow it introduce the soprano soloist, although often the earlier aria "But who may abide" is sung by the soprano in its transposed G minor form. The final recitative of this section is in D major and heralds the affirmative chorus "Glory to God." The remainder of Part I is largely carried by the soprano in B flat, in what Burrows considers a rare instance of tonal stability. The aria "He shall feed his flock" underwent several transformations by Handel, appearing at different times as a recitative, an alto aria, and a duet for alto and soprano before the original soprano version was restored in 1754. Sedley Taylor has questioned the appropriateness of the Italian source material for the setting of the solemn concluding chorus "His yoke is easy,” calling it "a piece of word-painting ... grievously out of place," while also conceding that the four-part choral conclusion is a stroke of genius that combines beauty with dignity.

Part 2

The second Part begins in G minor, a key which, in Hogwood's phrase, brings a mood of "tragic presentiment" to the long sequence of Passion numbers which follows. The declamatory opening chorus "Behold the Lamb of God" is in fugal form and followed by the alto solo "He was despised" in E flat major. This is the longest single item in the oratorio, in which Christ's abandonment is underlined by some unaccompanied phrases, which Burney described as "the highest idea of excellence in pathetic expression of any English song." The subsequent series of mainly short choral movements cover Christ's Passion, Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, at first in F minor, with a brief F major respite in "All we like sheep." Here, Handel's use of Nò, di voi non vo'fidarmi earns Taylor's unqualified approval - "[Handel] bids the voices enter in solemn canonical sequence, and his chorus ends with a combination of grandeur and depth of feeling such as is at the command of consummate genius only."

The sense of desolation returns for the tenor recitative "All they that see him," in what Hogwood describes as the "remote and barbarous" key of B flat minor. The sombre sequence finally ends with the 'Ascension' chorus "Lift up your heads," which Handel initially divided between two choral groups, the altos serving both as the bass line to a soprano choir and the treble line to the tenors and basses. For the 1754 Foundling Hospital performance he added two horns, which join in when the chorus unites towards the end. After the celebratory tone of Christ's reception into heaven, marked by the choir's D major acclamation "Let all the angels of God worship him," the 'Whitsun' section proceeds through a series of contrasting moods - serenely pastoral in "How beautiful are the feet", theatrically operatic in "Why do the nations so furiously rage," towards the Part II culmination of 'Hallelujah.' As Young points out, this is not the climactic chorus of the work, although it is hard to escape its "contagious enthusiasm” as it builds from a deceptively light orchestral opening, through a short, unison cantus firmus passage on the words "For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth", to the reappearance of the long-silent trumpets at "And He shall reign for ever and ever.” Alert commentators have noted that the musical line for this third subject is based on a popular Lutheran chorale by Philipp Nicolai, Wachet auf.

Part 3

The opening soprano solo in E major, "I know that my Redeemer liveth," is one of the few numbers in the oratorio that has remained unrevised from its original form. Its simple unison violin accompaniment and its consoling rhythms apparently brought tears to Burney's eyes. It is followed by a quiet chorus that leads to the bass's declamation in D major "Behold, I tell you a mystery", then the long aria "The trumpet shall sound," marked pomposo ma non allegro - or 'dignified, but not fast.' Handel originally wrote this in da capo form, but shortened it to dal segno, probably before the first performance. The extended, characteristic trumpet tune that precedes and accompanies the voice is the only significant instrumental solo in the entire oratorio. Handel's awkward, repeated stressing of the fourth syllable of "incorruptible" may have been the source of the eighteenth-century poet William Shenstone's comment that he "could observe some parts in Messiah wherein Handel's judgements failed him; where the music was not equal, or was even opposite, to what the words required."

After a brief solo recitative, the alto is joined by the tenor for the only duet in Handel's final version of the music, "O death, where is thy sting?" The melody is adapted from Handel's 1722 cantata Se tu non lasci amore and is in Luckett's view the most successful of the Italian borrowings. The duet runs straight into the chorus "But thanks be to God.” The reflective soprano solo "If God be for us" (originally written for alto) quotes Martin Luther's chorale Aus tiefer Not. It ushers in the D major choral finale "Worthy is the Lamb," leading up to the apocalyptic "Amen" in which, says Hogwood, "the entry of the trumpets marks the final storming of heaven.” Handel's first biographer, John Mainwaring, wrote that this conclusion revealed the composer "rising still higher" than in "that vast effort of genius, the Hallelujah chorus.” Young writes that the "Amen" should, in the manner of Palestrina, "be delivered as though through the aisles and ambulatories of some great church."

Handel's Messiah has stubbornly remained his best-known work, with performances proliferating during the Advent season. Writing in December 1993, Alex Ross refers to that month's twenty-one performances in New York alone as "numbing repetition." Against the general trend towards authenticity, the work has also been staged in opera houses, both in London (2009) and Paris (2011). Mozart's score is occasionally revived, while the phenomenon of huge 'singalong' performances is disarmingly widespread in Anglophone countries. Although the striving for greater authenticity is now considered de rigueur, the general consensus is that there can never be a single, definitive version, since the surviving manuscripts contain radically different settings of many numbers, and vocal and instrumental ornamentation of the written notes is a matter of personal judgement, even for the most historically informed performers. Handel scholar Winton Dean has concluded that there is “still plenty for scholars to fight over, and more than ever for conductors to decide for themselves. Indeed if they are not prepared to grapple with the problems presented by the score they ought not to conduct it. This applies not only to the choice of versions, but to every aspect of baroque practice, and of course there are often no final answers.”

The NZSO will perform Handel's Messiah with the Tudor Concert, and conducted by English eighteenth century music expert Nicholas McGegan, on Saturday 8/12 at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre, where soloists will include Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Kristin Darragh (alto), Martin Snell (bass), and James Egglestone (tenor).

On Sunday 9/12 the NZSO will present four award-winning young soloists recognised for their artistic excellence at Palmerston North's Regent on Broadway.

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